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Water boost for San Joaquin Valley excludes citrus belt

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Federal officials announced an increase of water allocations for exchange contractors along the San Joaquin River in California, but farms in the state's citrus belt are still slated to receive no water.

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO — Federal officials boosted water allocations for farms and wildlife along the San Joaquin River, but little relief appears headed to the state’s beleaguered citrus belt.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials announced May 13 that exchange contractors along the river will get 529,000 acre-feet of water this year — about 65 percent of their normal allocation. They had been slated to receive 40 percent.

Some high-priority wildlife refuges in the region will see a similar boost. To accomplish the increases, Reclamation will begin releasing water from Friant Dam near Fresno as well as from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Central Valley Project users without senior water rights will still receive no federal water, although officials said they’re trying to facilitate water transfers to help them.

“I think just given where we are in the water year, the likelihood of any additional changes (to allocations) is pretty small,” said Pablo Arroyave, the bureau’s regional deputy manager.

“We continue to be in a very serious drought with very serious impacts across all beneficiaries of the water that both the CVP and State Water Project provide,” Arroyave told reporters in a conference call. “There are significant impacts to agricultural users, municipal and industrial users, waterfowl and endangered species. This drought is painful on all fronts.”

California Citrus Mutual president Joel Nelsen blasted the new allocation, saying it’s “utterly ridiculous” that the nation’s top agricultural region will remain dry while farms and wildlife refuges in other areas will get water.

“What the federal government said today is that the production of food and fiber in the nation’s No. 1 agricultural state, in the highest producing agricultural counties in the state, is no longer important,” Nelsen told the Capital Press. “As a result, you’re going to see more acres taken out of production, see more farm families lose their economic livelihood and see a much higher priced selection of fruits and vegetables in stores later this summer and into next year.”

The exchange contractors’ water rights date to the late 1800s and their water authority serves about 240,000 acres of prime farmland east of Interstate 5 and primarily west of the San Joaquin River, extending from Stanislaus to Fresno County, according to the authority’s website.

In 1939, the contractors agreed to take Sacramento River water through the Delta-Mendota Canal instead of water from the San Joaquin River in exchange for guaranteed deliveries. This is the first time since then that water had to be taken from Millerton Lake, which was formed by Friant Dam, to fulfill the contracts, officials said.

The Friant-Kern Canal is the primary source of water for the state’s $1.5 billion citrus crop. Citrus Mutual has warned that at least 50,000 acres of trees in Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties could be taken out of production unless at least 200,000 acre-feet of water is provided in the canal.

Nelsen asserted that Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service “allowed too much rain water in March to move into the ocean, yet they want to keep what they’ve got when there is some water available to lessen the pain that’s being inflicted on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.”

Arroyave said citrus growers have “a legitimate concern” and that “we’re working daily with our Friant water users to facilitate and find ways to get additional water supplies to the area.” But he said agencies are bound by seniority of water rights and other legal constraints.

Reclamation has completed environmental documents for a program that would enable 50,000 acre-feet a year of pumped groundwater to flow through the Friant-Kern Canal. In addition, there is some carry-over water from 2013 available to the growers, although it’s “far shy” of what they need, Arroyave acknowledged.

“If you look at 2014 in a vacuum, the hydrology is not as horrible as it has been in other years,” he said. “But what we’re working through is we’re on the third year of below-average precipitation, which started us at a low point in terms of storage.”

Online

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region: http://www.usbr.gov/mp/

California Citrus Mutual: http://www.cacitrusmutual.com



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